Sundance 2019: Lulu Wang's 'The Farewell' is Genuinely Wonderful
by Alex Billington
February 3, 2019
Family is everything. We must never forget them. One of the most wonderful, heartwarming, beautifully-made films of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival The Farewell. Written and directed by filmmaker Lulu Wang, her second feature after making Posthumous in 2014, The Farewell tells a very personal (and true) story from Wang's own life - about the time she had to fly from NYC all the way China to visit her grandma when they thought she was close to dying, but nobody was allowed to tell her this. The film is filled with heartfelt humor, genuine emotions that give the story so much life, along with confident filmmaking from Wang - who has an impressive grasp on managing an ensemble of memorable characters. It is a genuinely wonderful film, and one that has only grown on me more after first seeing it at the beginning of the festival.
The Farewell stars Awkwafina in a defining role as Billi, a headstrong, independent young woman living in New York City. When she finds out some bad news about her grandmother, who was an important part of her life growing up, her parents try to convince her to stay home while they go visit her. But she can't resist and hops on a flight. Most of the film takes place in China, in one of the smaller cities. But it has a story that connects deeply with all of us - no matter where you're from or what language(s) you speak. It's an engaging comedy, with humor that comes from honest moments of expression and awkwardness. All the jokes aren't too cheesy, they're inspired by and based on reality. And it's also a passionate drama, built up with authentic performances and sincere emotions that come through in many unexpected but moving, meaningful ways.
Lulu Wang handles everything with great care and concern, and with a great amount of confidence. She has a light touch, letting the scenes play out naturally. Where she truly shines is in giving the cast of characters authentic personalities, and balancing an entire family of nine (or more) different people in the film. Yet none of them end up overlapping, or getting lost in the mix. Each one stands out in their own way, not just because they pretty much feel like a real member of this family, but because she has crafted each character perfectly - both on the page and on the set. Zhao Shuzhen as the matriarch Nai Nai gives an extraordinary performances, she's the beacon that keeps all others lit. Her parents, played by Tzi Ma and Diana Lin, are also excellent - even though they are not always supportive of Billi's choices. Everyone else is just as superb.
It goes without saying, but Awkwafina is at her very best in The Farewell. I won't call this a "breakout" role because she has already broken out, but this is a turning point in her career. Unlike many of her previous Hollywood roles, she's not all out comedic or wacky, she's playing a real person with real emotions this time and she still totally rocks the performance. The way she expresses her emotions is nuanced, leading to an authentic character that is endearing in every way. It's a film that sticks with you after you see it, becoming more revealing with time. Wang tells a lovely story about a Chinese family, but it's a story all of us can be moved by. Easily one of my favorite films at Sundance 2019, The Farewell is a major film from Lulu Wang that proves she's immensely talented. Discover how much we're all alike thanks to her exquisite storytelling.
Alex's Sundance 2019 Rating: 9 out of 10
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